The following dialogue is taken from “Tipp Kokk” (Top Chef), a classic Estonian film starring Toomas Kruuse and Valve Kiilmaa:
“Top Chef was created to teach TBS. Tomato Based Sauce. Ketchup. You are the top one percent of all kitchen food assemblers. The elite. Best of the best. We’ll make you better.”
This past weekend the Mingus family decided to try out a new Russian-themed restaurant on Kompanii Street, right around the corner from Town Hall Square. The premises used to be a nightclub called Who Doesn’t Like Johnny Depp? A more appropriate name would have been Who Doesn’t Like This Place? The answer to that question explains why it quickly went out of business. Then it was called Gläm, which as you can tell by its name was an Asian restaurant.
Now it’s called Vassilissa, named for a Russian fairytale. Setting itself apart from the other Russian joint in Tartu, this one serves—wait a minute, they serve exactly the same foods. Lots of herring, sour cream, pickles, potatoes, deep-fried stuff, and vodka. In fact, menu-wise, it’s not really that different at all from Estonian restaurants, either.
“You just cooked an incredibly brave dinner. What you should have done was boil your potatoes! You don’t eat in this restaurant, your customers do! Son, your ego is cooking food your customers can’t appreciate.”
We ordered our food and a couple coffees. I was surprised to see that the coffee—when it was delivered in just a couple minutes—was served in mugs labeled “Café Noir”, which of course is another restaurant in Tartu. The competition. Is it just me, or is that a bit odd? I went on a tour of the A.le Coq brewery, and at the end they served beer. But they were out of A.le Coq, so they served Saku. Nah, just kidding. Maybe the mugs were stolen.
The menus are nice enough, except they, too, are a tad misleading. Instead of the word “Vassilissa” written on the cover, it’s an advertisement for a winery. Our kids, however, really enjoyed the play corner. It’s conveniently located off to the side, enclosed in soundproof, bulletproof glass that maximizes parents’ dining enjoyment and protects innocent children from the FSB.
I overheard another customer, a large, bald man dressed all in white drinking red Louis Latour wine, ask Krista the waitress how to get to the terrace, which he could see through the window at his table.
“Where’s the door?”
—If you would like to smoke, just go outside.
“Noh yeah, where’s the door?”
—It’s over there, she said, pointing to the main entrance.
“I want to go here,” he motioned to the window.
—It’s closed for the season.
That was a shame. What could be but probably wasn’t considered the nicest terrace in Tartu was closed on this beautiful day. The tables and chairs were still outside, however.
“You’re a hell of a food assembler. Maybe too good. I’d like to bust your butt, but I can’t. I gotta’ send someone from this vocational school to Top Chef. You screw up just this much, you’ll be cooking in a cafeteria full of rubber dog shit in Annelinn.”
The kids’ menu offered wieners and fries and ketchup. Mrs. Mingus ordered Chicken Kiev from the Louis Latour menu. I took a bite. It was delicious, in fact. And quite honestly, the potatoes were truly amazing. No potato seasoning. After a few bites, however, she complained it was getting a little too greasy. As for my selyanka (commonly translated to English as “thick Russian soup”), it was alright. I’ve had better. The rule for good selyanka is the same as good Mexican. The best is always found in the worst places. We enjoyed our visit to Vassilissa, so it stands to reason their soup would be average.
I’ve been tricked into eating a lot of ketchup lately. I had to ask. “Don’t,” Mrs. Mingus protested. “It’s going to be embarrassing!” I told her to watch and learn.
“Excuse me,” I asked Krista. “This selyanka was very good. Could I ask what’s in it?” She seemed generally pleased that I was happy, and eagerly proceeded to tell me all the ingredients from memory, and even a couple variations for preparing it. I was so impressed. This had never happened in a Tartu restaurant. “So there’s no ketchup in it, for example?” I timidly asked.
—No, no, of course not! she answered with a real smile. The service was quick, polite, overall a very positive experience. What it should be. I tipped accordingly. Most Estonians say they don’t tip. I say they should. I have no reservations about paying for a smile. Scowls are free anywhere you go in the world.
When I reached home, I looked up the “Tartu Kutsehariduskeskus”, or Tartu Vocational School. This is apparently where they teach Tartu’s food assemblers. I think I finally understand why most of the restaurants serve basically the same stuff, and why the more gourmet food always consists of what I call the Tartu Holy Trinity—red bell pepper, blue cheese and pineapple. The vast majority of the teachers and instructors were themselves educated in food assembly in the same school, or the Agricultural University. And their teachers and mentors were taught during the Soviet occupation. These people are taught to use ketchup on pasta, just like Estonian driving schools teach their students to back into parking spaces.
“You’ve lost that loving feeling, oh that loving feeling. You’ve lost that loving feeling, now it’s gone, gone, gone…”